Sunday, August 2, 2015

Phil Kniss: Of many, one

In God’s household...we are called to unity
(Reflections on Mennonite World Conference assembly 2015)
Ephesians 4:1-16

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This text, from today’s lectionary, couldn’t be better suited
    for focusing on our experience
    of gathering as a global Anabaptist family.

It’s also a text that deserves a full-length sermon,
    and maybe even a sermon series.
    Instead, I’m going to make a couple brief comments,
        and we will move on.
    We can further the conversation in other times and places.

The call for unity has met with some resistance lately.
    Many people, myself included,
        are praying and working vigorously, for unity in the church.
    Others are pushing back.
        They don’t say unity isn’t a good thing.
        But they raise a caution, saying unity has limits.
        They point to higher goods,
            like honoring and worshiping God, by doing God’s will.
    And I agree with them.

I think some of what’s happening here, not surprisingly,
    is that we talk past each other.
    We use the word “unity” in different ways.

Certainly, we all affirm the goodness of unity in Christ.
    It’s something we all value.
    We can’t help but value it,
        given how strongly Jesus felt about it,
        how passionately he prayed for it to his father.

But sometimes we talk about Christian unity
    as deep, relational, spiritual unity.
Other times we’re basically talking about
    organizational and structural unity.
They can be related, but they aren’t the same thing.

The 7-8,000 Anabaptist-Mennonites gathered in Harrisburg,
    were a perfect example of Christian unity
        that was strong on relationship, spiritual life, and worship,
        and soft on organization and structures.
    The many member bodies of Mennonite World Conference,
        from the U.S. to Honduras to Ethiopia to Germany to Java,
        did not find it hard to worship God together,
            centered on Jesus Christ,
            unified by the Holy Spirit.
    There was a palpable, compelling sense
        that we were one body in Christ.

But we would have run into trouble, no doubt,
    if we tried to enter together
    into a relationship of mutual accountability,
        around a shared set of practices,
        and a shared set of detailed theological affirmations.

    Yet . . . we could take communion together. And we did.
        All 7,000 of us, eating and drinking together in one place,
            from one common table of the Lord.
        That, for me, was one of the more moving moments of MWC.
    We were living into Ephesians 4.
    We were acknowledging our
        one body and one Spirit, the one hope of our calling,
        one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all,
            who was above all and through all and in . . . all of us.

I think one of the joyful challenges we have
    as a church in the world today,
    is to more clearly define the basis of our identity and mission,
        the basis of our unity and mutual accountability as a body.

This is especially challenging for MCUSA—
    because we are a body with a large and complicated set
    of organizational and relational and accountability structures
        that we need to navigate—
    in a group that’s all over the map, literally and figuratively,
        in vastly different ethnic, cultural, social, political,
            and theological contexts.

It’s at least a little easier to work at it
    at the level of Mennonite World Conference,
    because there we are a body
        that emphasizes fellowship in Christ through the Spirit,
        that joins together in worship,
        that shares in some work and mission together,
        but does not emphasize boundary marking,
            or parsing out a lot of specifics in theology and practice.

How much does spiritual and relational unity
    depend on organizational and structural unity?

Can we at Park View be sisters and brothers,
    in a truly meaningful way,
    with the church in Zimbabwe or Cambodia or the Netherlands?
    Can they be sisters and brothers with each other? Truly?
    We hardly know each other,
        and the cultural, economic, and language barriers are huge.

But at least at some meaningful level,
    we can still enter into this gift of unity
    that we find in Christ, through the Spirit.

Unity is a biblical priority.
    It is the heartfelt prayer of Jesus.
    It is the passion of the apostle Paul in Ephesians.
    We simply must find a way
        to not only call each other brother and sister,
        but to live as members of the same family.

How are we supposed to accomplish this?
Ephesians 4:2, 3, says,
    “with all humility and gentleness, with patience,
        bearing with one another in love,
        making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit
        in the bond of peace.”

Did you hear that—“bearing with one another in love.”
    Or as the King James puts it,
        “forbearing one another in love.”
    Forbearance is not a recent fad that MCUSA conjured up.
    It is our biblical mandate,
        bear with one another in love.
    Be patient, in all humility and gentleness,
        making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit
        in the bond of peace . . .
            until all of us come to the unity of the faith
            and of the knowledge of the Son of God,
            to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

May that day come.
And may we open our heart to what God may be asking of us,
    in order to find that unity.

—Phil Kniss, August 2, 2015

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